First—And Foremost | Debut Novels

  

Some debut novels are much anticipated, such as National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and A.J. Finn’s Frankfurt hit, The Woman in the Window. Others seem to come out of nowhere. Who knew Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties would be that good, and how did C. Morgan Babst make us feel Hurricane Katrina’s lasting terror in The Floating World? Either way, debut novels are always a surprise, and therein lies their power.

LITERARY HOT SPOTS

Cassara, Joseph. The House of Impossible Beauties. Ecco: HarperCollins. Feb. 2018. 416p. ISBN 9780062676979. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062677006.

Opening in 1980 New York with 16-year-old Angel feeling trapped in her boy body, then weaving together the stories of various trans outsiders whom Angel collects into a family, this exceptional debut was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza, as seen in the documentary Paris Is Burning. “Erotically luscious, lyrically intense, forthrightly in your face, and pitch-perfect in the dialog.” (LJ 8/17)

Emezi, Akwaeke. Freshwater. Grove. Feb. 2018. 240p. ISBN 9780802127358. $24.

A Nigerian-born Igbo and Tamil writer and artist now living in Brooklyn and Trinidad, Emezi won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Here, she grounds madness, as manifested in main character Ada, in an ancient cosmology that sees god-born selves creeping into human being when the gates between this world and the beyond aren’t properly closed. Readers agree: like nothing you have ever read.

Graham-Felsen, Sam. Green. Random. Jan. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9780399591143. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399591150.

Chief blogger for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Graham-Felsen investigates ongoing inequality by fictionalizing his experiences as a white boy in a mostly black middle school in Boston. At the same time, he examines the complexities of friendship across a racial and cultural divide. This LJ Editors’ Fall Pick “poignantly captures the tumultuous feelings of adolescence against the historical backdrop of a racially segregated city and country.” (LJ 9/1/17)

Harrison, Phil. The First Day. Houghton Harcourt. Oct. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9781328849663. $23; ebk. ISBN 9781328849670.

In this blazing first novel by filmmaker Harrison, Belfast preacher Samuel Orr cannot resist the sins of the flesh, and son Philip’s resentment of half-brother Sam leads to a violent act with long-lasting repercussions. “Harrison’s absorbing debut will surprise readers with its ingenious plot twists and nuanced characters.” (LJ 9/1/17)

Howarth, Paul. Only Killers and Thieves. Harper. Feb. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780062690968. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062690999.

In 1880s Australia, adolescent siblings whose parents have been slaughtered and sister left for dead, presumably by a resentful Aboriginal stockman recently let go, join with an unscrupulous landowner in a violent search for revenge. This visceral yet elegantly written work is the publisher’s “Lead Read” for the season.

Hunter, Megan. The End We Start From. Atlantic. Nov. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9780802126894. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780802189066.

With London sunk beneath the flood­waters, a woman escapes north with her baby in this fable-like, delicately told dystopic tale. “The story may seem familiar…but debut novelist Hunter’s spare prose and luminous writing give it a fresh immediacy.” A big hit at the London Book Fair and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. (LJ 9/15/17)

Lee, Mira T. Everything Here Is Beautiful. Pamela Dorman: Viking. Jan. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9780735221963. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735221987.

Spun from an award-winning short story that originally appeared in the Missouri Review, this debut features two Chinese American sisters, steady Miranda and the volatile Lucia, who starts hearing voices after their mother dies and loses all direction despite Miranda’s best efforts to help. “A visceral portrayal of sister love and its limits.” (LJ 9/1/17)

Li, Winnie M. Dark Chapter. Polis. Sept. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781943818624. $26; pap. ISBN 9781785079061. $11.99; ebk. ISBN 9781943818761.

In Ireland on a weekend break from her London job, Taiwanese American Vivian is enjoying a solitary walk when she is attacked and raped by an emotionally damaged Irish boy. “What is striking about this acclaimed first novel…is that not only is it based on an incident in the author’s life, but the facility with which Li is able to intertwine the life stories of Vivian and Johnny, giving each substance and depth.” (LJ 8/17)

Murphy, Devin. The Boat Runner. Harper Perennial. Sept. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9780062658012. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062658029.

In a moving coming-of-age story set during World War II, a Dutch boy and his family face impossible choices. Do they cooperate with the invading Germans? Or engage in risky sabotage? And what happens when the Allies bomb the local factory because it supplies the German army? This Discover Great New Writers Pick is “an effectively detailed, morally complex book that will appeal to all readers of historical fiction.” (LJ 8/17)

Pierce, Thomas. The Afterlives. Riverhead. Jan. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9781594632532. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780698144941.

A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree who won high praise for his debut story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, Pierce tells the story of a man who dies briefly of a heart attack at age 30 and, after reviving, worries that he saw no hint of an afterlife. That sends him and his wife on a journey both thoughtfully and absorbingly written.

SMALL-PRESS GEMS

Babst, C. Morgan. The Floating World. Algonquin. Oct. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9781616205287. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616207632.

When older daughter Cora refuses to abandon New Orleans as Hurricane ­Katrina sweeps in, Joe Boisdoré, an artist descended from a freed slave, and his white, upper-crust wife, Dr. Tess Eshleman, must leave without her. “A richly written, soak-in-it kind of book; now you’ll know what it was like to have survived Katrina.” (LJ 8/17)

Dempsey, Joan. This Is How It Begins. She Writes. Oct. 2017. 399p. ISBN 9781631523083. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631523090.

Still tough at 85, art professor and ­Holocaust survivor Ludka Zeilonka wrestles with a new problem: her grandson Tommy has been fired, along with other gay high school teachers, after being accused of silencing Christian students. “Current events have only made this gripping story more relevant.” (LJ 9/15/17)

Diaz, Hernan. In the Distance. Coffee House. Oct. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781566894883. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780062676979.

Associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University, Diaz challenges the conventions of writing fiction about the American West. In the 1840s, young Swedish immigrant Håkan Söderström boards the wrong ship in New York, ends up in San Francisco, and must travel east to find his brother. “Resonant historical fiction with a contemporary feel.” (LJ 9/1/17)

Patric, A.S . Black Rock White City. Melville House. Sept. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781612196831. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781612196848.

A Sarajevo-based Serb who fled unimaginable horrors with wife Suzana, Jovan now works as a janitor in a Melbourne hospital, where he’s forced to wash away increasingly disturbing graffiti that seems directed at him; he’s obliterating and cleansing terms like obliteration and ethnic cleansing. A Miles Franklin Literary Award winner; “Patric’s images will remain indelibly and affectingly in readers’ minds.” (Xpress Reviews 8/18)

Rowe, Josephine . A Loving, Faithful Animal. Catapult. Sept. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9781936787579. pap. $16.95.

In 1990 Australia, Ru’s increasingly disturbed Vietnam vet father disappears, and more troubles cascade down as her mother languishes in the past and her wild sister seeks escape. This debut from an Elizabeth Jolley Prize winner is “one of the smarter, most lyrically written stories you’ll read about a fracturing family” (forthcoming LJ review).

BIG THRILLS

Adams, Brock. Ember. Hub City. Sept. 2017. 200p. ISBN 9781938235320. pap. $18.

In this postapocalyptic thriller, winner of the South Carolina First Novel Prize, the sun is cooling, people desperate to survive clump in little enclaves, and armed militant rebels look to take over what’s left of the government. For those “who enjoy dystopian worlds, quick pacing, sympathetic if flawed protagonists, and compelling prose.” (LJ 9/1/17)

Brady, A.F. The Blind. Park Row: Harlequin. Sept. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780778330875. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488023651.

Routinely assigned the toughest cases at her elite psychiatric institution in Manhattan, psychologist Sam James is the only staff member willing to deal with seemingly normal new patient Richard. Working with him sends Sam down her own dark path. “A fast-paced, riveting psychological chiller; brilliant character study and superior writing make this an outstanding debut.” (LJ 8/17)

Cleveland, Karen. Need To Know. Ballantine. Jan. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781524797027. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781524797034.

Counterintelligence analyst Vivian Miller has a talent for discovering the leaders of Russian sleeper cells in the United States, but a secret dossier of deep-cover agents brings her whole life crashing down. “This suspenseful espionage tale is a rousing Act 2 to the excitement of TV’s The Americans and the novels of Chris ­Pavone.” (LJ 10/1/17)

Finn, A.J. The Woman in the Window. Morrow. Jan. 2018. 448p. ISBN 9780062678416. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062678447.

A big Frankfurt title, buzzing even before BookExpo last spring, sold to 35 countries, and in development as a Fox film, this white-knuckler is one of the most talked-about debuts of the season. Finn’s woman at the window peers out of her New York apartment and sees something she shouldn’t, and the result “lives up to its hype, stand[ing] out in a crowded genre.” An LJ Editors’ Fall Pick. (LJ 8/17)

Robins, Jane. White Bodies. Touchstone. Sept. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781501165085. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501165108.

Callie may be unusually obsessive about glimmering, popular twin sister Tilda, but she has good reason to worry about Tilda’s new boyfriend Felix. “After a slow beginning, this debut by a British journalist…offers a suspenseful and twisty foray into the world of obsessive love that suspense junkies should not miss.” (Xpress Reviews 9/1/17)

IT’S A MYSTERY

Early, Hank. Heaven’s Crooked Finger. Crooked Lane. (Earl Marcus Mystery, Bk. 1). Nov. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781683313915. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781683313922.

Earl Marcus wants to forget a childhood riven by the excesses of his father’s fundamentalist church, but not so fast. He’s just received a photo of his father, presumably long dead but looking hale and hearty. “This gritty and riveting debut combines elements of a classic Southern gothic tale, enhanced by distinct pacing, a redolent sense of place, and striking characters.” (LJ 10/1/7)

Steyn, Martin. Dark Traces. Catalyst. Oct. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781946395016. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781946395054.

A member of Cape Town’s Violent Crimes Unit, South African Police Warrant Officer Jan Magson goes after a nasty serial killer while mourning his wife’s death. “A damaged but determined detective is matched against a bold and intelligent killer in this captivating debut thriller.” (LJ 8/17)

Thomas, Wendall. Lost Luggage. Poisoned Pen. (Cyd Redondo Mysteries, Bk. 1). Oct. 2017. 258p. ISBN 9781464208928. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781464208935.

Having worked hard at her family’s travel agency, Cyd Redondo is thrilled to win a trip to Tanzania, but things don’t go as planned—and lost luggage, jailed clients, and animal smugglers aren’t even the half of it. Now she’s the main suspect in a murder. “Thomas makes a rollicking debut.” (LJ 10/1/17)

POPULAR FICTION

Bergmann, Emanuel. The Trick. Atria. Sept. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9781501155826. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501155840.

After World War I, rabbi’s son Moshe Goldenhirsch runs away from home and becomes a magician, performing as the Great Zabbatini. How his story connects with that of 11-year-old Max Cohn, trying to avert his parents’ divorce in 21st-century California, is “a magic trick of its own. Bergmann’s ability to create appealing, well-drawn characters and tell a gripping story is impressive.” An LJ Editors’ Fall Pick. (LJ 9/1/17)

Glover, Dennis. The Last Man in Europe. Overlook. Nov. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781468315912. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781468315929.

In a tumble-down farmhouse on one of Scotland’s far-flung islands, George Orwell battles illness to pen his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. “This engrossing, timely, and finely detailed first novel about the creation of a 20th-century literary masterpiece is a must-read for lovers of history, literature, or politics.” (LJ 9/1/17)

Hayes-McCoy, Felicity. The Library at the Edge of the World. Harper. Nov. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780062663726. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062663733.

Having escaped a crumbling marriage, librarian Hanna Casey is home on Ireland’s southwestern coast, driving a book­mobile and leading the fight against developers who want to consolidate services and close the local library. “An appealing novel…. There are plenty of good discussion points about the nature of community for book clubs and thoughtful readers.” (LJ 9/1/17)

Hornak, Francesca. Seven Days of Us. Berkley. Oct. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780451488756. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780451488770.

Luckily for the Birch family, they’re getting to spend Christmas together for the first time in years. Unluckily for them, they’re forced together for seven days, quarantined because daughter Olivia is back from volunteering in Liberia. This “satisfyingly alternative holiday read” is an LJ Editors’ Fall Pick and the No. 1 ­LibraryReads pick for October.

McKibben, Bill . Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance. Blue Rider. Nov. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780735219861. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780735219878.

Famed environmental activist ­McKibben steps into fiction with a work starring 72-year-old Vern Barclay, who broadcasts a subversive message via Radio Free Vermont: Vermont should secede from the United States and operate under a free local economy. “McKibben’s…spirited and thought-provoking modern fable will have readers grappling with the ethical questions of how and when resistance is necessary.” (LJ 9/15/17)

Navin, Rhiannon. Only Child. Knopf. Feb. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781524733353. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781524733360.

After a gunman ranged through their school, killing 19 people, six-year-old Zach retreats into his own special hideaway and uses his imagination to heal. One of the publisher’s biggest books of the spring—the voice immediately distinctive and riveting.

Roberts, Paige. Virtually Perfect. Kensington. Sept. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781496710093. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781496710109.

Her cooking show, monthly magazine column, and cookbook deal all out the window, Lizzie Glass becomes personal chef to the über-wealthy Silvesters at their summer home on the Jersey Shore. “Roberts’s spot-on debut novel delves into the virtually perfect façade of an internally imperfect family.” (LJ 9/1/17)

Weiner, Matthew. Heather, the Totality. Little, Brown. Nov. 2017. 144p. ISBN 9780316435314. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316435307.

In the world of Manhattan’s one percent, a husband and wife frantically compete for their daughter’s attention even as a threatening young man steps in view. Weiner, the driving force behind Mad Men, delivers “a razor-sharp, fast-paced dark look at the class divide.” (LJ 8/17)

Wolfson, Brianna. Rosie Colored Glasses. Mira: Harlequin. Feb. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780778330691. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488022890.

Wolfson’s autobiographical debut features Willow, a child of divorce caught between her rigid father and a mother named Rosie who’s warm and loving and suddenly dangerously crazy. From a star on the San Francisco storytelling circuit; a big hit at BookExpo and a Publishers Lunch Buzz Book.

Bracht, Mary Lynn. White Chrysanthemum. Putnam. Jan. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9780735214439. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735214453. historical

Of Korean heritage, Bracht boldly faces the ugly truth of the Japanese military’s forcing 200,000 Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II. Big buzz.

Darznik, Jasmin. Song of a Captive Bird. Ballantine. Feb. 2018. 416p. ISBN 9780399182310. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399182327. literary

Darznik follows The Good Daughter, her New York Times best-selling memoir, with a portrait of poet Forugh ­Farrokzhad, sometimes called Iran’s ­Sylvia Plath.

On the Horizon

Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. Peculiar Ground. Harper. Jan. 2018. 496p. ISBN 9780062684196. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062684219. literary

Winner of Samuel Johnson and Costa Biography honors, Hughes-Hallett got rave UK reviews for this novel, which chronicles a great house named ­Wychwood from the 17th century ­onward.

MacArthur, Robin. Heart Spring Mountain. Ecco: HarperCollins. Jan. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9780062444424. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062444455. literary

Following the PEN New England Book Award–winning story collection Half Wild, this soberingly relevant work features a young woman looking for her estranged mother after Tropical Storm Irene devastates ­Vermont.

Quatro, Jamie. Fire Sermon. Grove. Jan. 2018. 224p. ISBN 9780802127044. $24. literary

Quatro’s story collection, I Want To Show You More, won multiple honors; this full-length fiction features Maggie, married with children, who is drawn as if mesmerized to a wild affair with poet James.

Rosengaard, Mikkel. The Invention of Ana. Custom House: Morrow. Feb. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9780062679079. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062679093. LITERARY

In this Danish award winner, an aspiring writer fresh from Copenhagen meets a performance artist in Brooklyn who claims that she can time travel.

Vale, Maria. The Last Wolf. Sourcebooks Casablanca. (Legend of All Wolves, Bk. 1). Feb. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781492661870. pap. $7.99. paranormal romance

Runty Silver Nilsdottir determines to make a place for herself with the Great North Pack by fighting for a wounded man who seeks the pack’s protection. The publisher wants a trilogy.

Sf/FANTASTICAL

Chakraborty, S.A. The City of Brass. Harper Voyager. (Daevabad Trilogy, Bk. 1). Nov. 2017. 544p. ISBN 9780062678102. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062678126.

In 1700s Cairo, street hustler Nahri cons people with her tricks but rejects the idea that magic really exists until she manages to summon up a dark and wily djinn warrior who takes her to the magnificent City of Brass. An LJ Fantasy Debut Pick. “With a swiftly moving plot, richly drawn characters, and a beautifully constructed world…this lyrical historical fantasy…brings to vivid life the ancient mythological traditions of an Islamic world unfamiliar to most American ­readers.” (LJ 9/15/17)

Solomon, Rivers. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Akashic. Oct. 2017. 340p. ISBN 9781617755880. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617755996.

Solomon’s dystopian fantasy stars quietly rebellious Aster, whose family has lived for generations in the hold of the creaky HSS Matilda, putatively carrying the last of humanity to a Promised Land. “Harrowing and beautiful, this is sf at its best…. The fully rounded characters bring ­nuance and genuine pathos to this amazing debut.” (LJ 9/15/17)

Yang, JY. The Black Tides of Heaven. (Tensorate, Bk. 1). 240p. ISBN 9780765395412; ebk. ISBN 9780765395405.

Yang, JY. The Red Threads of Fortune. (Tensorate, Bk. 2). 224p. ISBN 9780765395399; ebk. ISBN 9780765395382.

ea. vol: Tor.com. Oct. 2017. pap. $15.99.

In this debut novel doubleheader, the Protector has sent her six-year-old twins ­Mokoya and Akeha to the Grand Monastery to satisfy a debt, but when ­Mokoya develops prophetic tendencies, she’s essentially recalled, and the twins spin down different paths. “While published simultaneously, each volume can be read separately…together, they make an impressive, fresh debut steeped in Chinese culture.” (LJ 9/15/17)

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

This article was published in Library Journal's October 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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